As proof that my interest in Jorge Luis Borges knows ... well, not no bounds, but certainly fairly wide-ranging ones, I watched El amor y el espanto ("Love and Fear"). This is an Argentinean film directed by Juan Carlos Desanzo and based on part of Borges's life which was available in a Region 1 DVD (Argentina is Region 5). This was not as much a slam-dunk as it might seem--hence the "no- bounds" comment"--because the film is in Spanish, and there are no English subtitles (or even Spanish ones, which would have helped). So if I'm a bit unclear about some things, that is why.
It begins with the coming to power of Juan Peron in 1946. Borges was actively opposed to Peron, so the first "episode" is of his being transferred from his position in the National Library to one as an inspector of birds and rabbits in the Central Market. Several things are worth noting here.
First, like Borges's writing in A Universal History of Infamy and elsewhere, El amor y el espanto is a combination of fact and fiction. But in this story it is impossible to say how accurate the film is to the actual facts, because there is apparently much dispute over the facts. Borges claimed that Peron was personally involved (and biographer Emir Rodriguez Monegal seems to believe this), but this seems very unlikely given the vast number of civil servants and the demands upon Peron's time right after his election. It was in fact explicitly denied by Perón's Secretary of State for Culture for Buenos Aires Raul Salinas (according to Edwin Williamson). Salinas said that originally Borges was to be transferred to a position in "apicultura" (bees), but Borges and his friends tried to cause trouble by distorting "apicultura" to "avicultura". One problem with this distortion is that there was no such thing as "Dirección de Avicultura", according to Arturo López Peña. However, the fact that the Peronist newspapers referred to Borges as an inspector of chickens makes Salinas's claim a bit suspicious as well.
At any rate, the story as told in the film is very striking. It begins in Borges's parlor, where Borges and his mother are listening to the crowds cheering Perón's triumph. Borges then goes to his job in the Library, with its enormous high ceilings. In some the "funcionario"--the sort of anonymous government official that Kafka wrote of. This official has the appearance--and bearing--of a gangster. (If this were to be remade in English, Bob Hoskins would be perfect for the role.) The use of the gangster image is in keeping with Borges's interests; he wrote of gangsters in his writings about Argentinean low-life, in A Universal History of Infamy, and even in an introduction to the book The Gangs of New York.
This functionary informs Borges of his new position, and Borges then meets his girlfriend, who (I think) breaks off their relationship. That night, Borges walks through dark streets past painted graffiti that says "LA PRIMERA SEÑAL HA SIDO ARTICULADA" ("The first sign has been given"). This echoes "La primera letra del Nombre ha sido articulada" ("The first letter of the name [of God] has been spoken") from "Death and the Compass".
The next day Borges goes to his new job, but is repulsed by the filth of the pigsty he has to walk through and flees. He passes another graffiti that says "LA SEGUNDA SEÑAL HA SIDO ARTICULADA." He then goes into a bar where he watches some toughs playing cards. Something in his demeanor offends them and one challenges him with a knife. The bartended points out that Borges is unarmed, and suddenly someone throws a knife so that it lands in the table in front of Borges. He takes the knife, goes outside, is stabbed in the fight ... and wakes up. (Well, you knew he wasn't going to die this soon.) This, of course, is the basic plot of Borges's story "The South".
The next day Borges leaves his home and takes a room under the pseudonym Alejandro Visari. When the landlady asks for his occupation, he says that he is a "funcionario", taking on the same role as his oppressor. His mother comes to visit and Borges finds out that his girlfriend (named Beatriz Irena Viterbo here--the name of the woman in "The Aleph") is going to marry the new director of the Library, Carlos Argentino Daneri (also from "The Aleph"). His mother says that he needs the help of a detective (if there was an explanation why, I missed it), and suggests that he call on Detective Erik Lonnrot. Lonnrot, of course, is the detective in "Death and the Compass".
When he arrives at Lonnrot's office, he finds the clerk in the outer office writing. What is he writing? Don Quixote. Yes, it's Pierre Menard. To explain why he is writing a book that Borges tells him was written in the 16th century, Menard recites a sentence first as Cervantes wrote it and then, with completely different emphasis and interpretation, as he is writing it.
Borges tells Lonnrot that there is an assassin after him, and that this assassin is the state. Lonnrot dismisses this idea--after all, Borges is not a man of action who poses some threat.
On Borges's way out, Menard tells him that he is writing a novel even better than Don Quixote, and also that he has the key to the mystery. Later, Borges goes to Menard's apartment, an attic full of books, where Menard shows him the other book he is writing: En busca del tiempo perdido (Remembrance of Things Past). Before he can tell Borges the key, though, he is stabbed in the back somehow (even though there is nothing behind him but a blank wall).
Borges dreams Beatriz is being poisoned with a glass of milk (as in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious). He visits her, manages to force Daneri to spill the milk, and gets thrown out. Returning to Lonnrot, he passes graffiti saying "LA ULTIMA SEÑAL HA SIDO ARTICULADA."
After he has returned to Lonnrot, he goes through the process of using the compass to "triangulate" the site of the fourth murder. (As I have noted before, this is the magnetic compass, not the geometric one, though in the film he does use a set of dividers which resembles that sort of compass. He determines that the fourth point is his pensione, and he is the target. On his way there, he sees a student attacked by thugs in the street and Lonnrot intervenes--apparently Lonnrot has connections to the police. Lönnrott takes Borges to the police records department. This is a Kafka-esque labyrinth of records, also resembling an enormous library. Borges seeks out his own files. At first I thought that his records covered the entire table and were as complete as Funes's memory, but I am not sure that is the case, since he finally picks up one folder with a sense of triumph. That is definitely at least one of his folder, if not the entire set, and it turns out to have blank pages, because he is not guilty of anything. Lonnrot concludes that he himself is the intended victim, at the address given in the story "Death and the Compass", and goes off to meet his fate.
(Actually, I may not be far off on the Funes reference, since one review says that there is a character named Funes who manages a "library", and that probably refers to this sequence.)
Borges is met again by the functionary and told that his job--his actual future job--is as a man of letters. Borges goes to Beatriz's house and finds her dead. She is holding a pink rose; he cups his hand around it and it turns red (a reference to his poem "The Rose"?). He accuses Daneri of killing her, and then returns to pensione, where admits his true identity when his landlady starts to question him about his job. He packs to return home, but then his mother walks through the door, and ...
He is back standing in his parlor with his mother, while we hear the crowd outside cheering Peron's triumph.
For those of you not paying attention, I will point out that this film therefore contains a dream sequence within a dream sequence.
Gustavo Camps criticizes the film for a dependence on dialogue rather than visual images, which he thinks particularly bad for a thriller. He also describes it as being more a collection of independent scenes than a single narrative, and certainly it has this aspect. Then again, Borges's writing is a collection of short pieces, with nothing longer than "Tlöon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", so perhaps this is appropriate. (For reasons passing understanding, there are many pages on the Internet that claim the fifteen-page "The Congress" is longer.) Camps also points out that the screenwriter, José Pablo Feinman, is a Peronista and so is perhaps not entirely sympathetic to the anti-Peronist historical Borges.
Copyright 2010 Evelyn C. Leeper.